Want to maximize your leadership potential? Go on an information diet

October 18, 2019

When Dickens wrote “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” he could have been writing about our times.

By almost any measure – health, wealth, safety, equality – the world is a far better place today than it has ever been. It’s not just my opinion. It’s in the statistics. (You can and should look it up.) And yet many can’t see it. To them, the world’s glass is half empty and getting emptier. There’s a term for that. It’s called “declinism,” the belief that the world is going to “hell in a hand basket” and is probably going to stay there.

How do we bridge the gap between such polar opposite viewpoints and bring people around to a more sensible view of the world? How can we lead through such polarization?

My first advice is to better manage your information diet. Just as you watch what you eat, you should watch what you let into your mind. The people who have the best understanding of the world are very disciplined about how they consume information and about what informs their perspective. Quality information and perspective is key. This is especially important when choosing sources of world news.

During my time as YPO Chairman, I made it a practice to ask world leaders and thought leaders where they got their news. While the answers were varied in different parts of the world, in the English-speaking world the Associated Press (AP), Reuters and the Economist ranked very highly. They are now the only news apps I read regularly. For more in-depth global coverage, I also learned about and subscribed to Stratfor and read it monthly. It is worth the subscription fee. Cable news is no longer part of my life. Period.

But what about perspectives larger (or longer) than the news? How can we put into perspective all the change we see? How can we as leaders frame a perspective on AI and machine learning, global connectivity and global markets, rapid urbanization, the rise of women, changing sensibilities about issues like legalized cannabis, LBGTQ rights, corporate governance, etc.? These matters require more and deeper thought.

My move is to find the super-learners, those people who have dedicated their lives and genius to learning and reading at a scale and velocity unavailable to us mere mortals, and I use their insights to build my own mental roadmaps to larger issues. These thinkers have upgraded my understanding of the world and I think they’ll do the same for you:

Peter Diamandis

Peter is the co-author (with Steven Kotler) of “Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World” and the equally brilliant “Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think,” in which they offer solutions to challenges we’ll face in the future while also finding incredible opportunities within each. Abundance, in particular, is a great framing of how we should be thinking of the world. As a bonus, it also has a huge appendix that is helpful for anyone looking for references to global progress and future opportunities.

Hans Rosling

Many of you are familiar with his wonderful TED talks. But his book “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World and Why Things Are Better Than You Think” is close to genius. In it, he posits that instead of being swayed by the emotionally-driven hyperbole that surrounds us about the world and the people in it, we should confine our world-view to the well-reasoned and factually-supported. He also argues that when we do this, when we really look to the actual facts and statistics in comparing our current status to various ages of history, what we come to is an inescapable conclusion that almost every aspect of life is drastically better than it was previously. Every leader should read this to better understand how we should be talking about our global reality. Hans passed away recently, but his son will be carrying on his important work. We can expect more helpful insights to come.

Steven Pinker

His breakthrough book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” opened our eyes to the amazing scope of human progress from the last 200 years. His latest work, “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress,” argues that while the daily media feeds are increasingly violent, the world itself is safer than ever before and we are actually experiencing an unprecedented period of relative peace across the globe. He also offers many helpful insights into how we ought to think about global problems. It’s fantastic, mind-expanding stuff.

Yuval Noah Harari

No modern thinker has altered my view of human history and the world today more. I was fortunate to interview him in 2017 and am still blown away by the clarity of his thought. His three books – “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” (2014), “Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow” (2016), and “21 Lessons for the 21st Century” (2018) – should be read in order. They offer amazing insights and a sort of operating system for today’s leaders.

In Sapiens, he helps us understand what humans really are and how we use “story” to coordinate effort and create value across vast distances. He also makes us painfully aware of the potential side effects of our addiction to technology. He urges us to control things like genetic engineering, immortality, and non-organic lest they became the death of us.

In Homo Deus, he writes about how humanity is beginning to possess the powers of “gods” to create and extend life and how there will be incredible benefits and challenges with both. He concludes by asking, “What will happen to society, politics and daily life when non-conscious but highly intelligent algorithms know us better than we know ourselves?”

And, finally, in 21 Questions, he helps us understand more about the major “stories” that have driven our societies, how they are changing and how we need to be aware of old stories resurfacing if we are not careful. In a world that has seen the failings of imperialism, fascism and communism along with challenges to western liberal democracy and the rise of populist and nationalist leaders, Harari’s writings are timely references for a boundless leader.

No thoughtful leader today should avoid learning about thought itself and how the mind really works. It is still amazing to me how little we still know about the mind and how few leaders dedicate some of their efforts to understand it better. To be truly effective, leaders must understand enough of how the mind works so that they can understand the people they lead and how to get to the sources of issues and opportunities that most certainly will arise in their minds.

Daniel Kahneman

The Nobel Prize-winning author of “Thinking, Fast and Slow” has popularized several vast tracts of thinking from the world of psychology. Generally speaking, his pioneering work (with his equally brilliant and longtime collaborator Amos Nathan Tversky) scientifically prove how the human mind can play tricks on us and how we all make many of our decisions based on hard- wired biases. He describes that we have two systems of thinking, a fast and intuitive system and a slower, more deliberate system. He describes that our preference is to rely heavily on our fast, intuitive system for most decisions and, because of this, we often fail to bring our full intelligence to bear on problems. More specifically for business leaders, his work helps us to understand how emotions cloud our thinking when it comes to risk, financial decisions and even judgments about human resource issues. It is a worthy read and very helpful for those making the boundless journey.

Marcus Aurelius

Aurelius was the emperor of Rome from 161 to 180 but he is best known as a Stoic philosopher. His epic work “Meditations” is enjoying a renaissance of sorts in the modern age, influencing thinker and leaders across the globe. Several years ago, I re-read the Hayes translation of “Meditations” and was amazed how the voice of this thoughtful world leader resonated with me across the 2,000 years since he reigned. His thinking is clear and challenging. His approach is deep and yet very rational. It has become my bedtime reading ever since. Recently, I also discovered the popular book “The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance and the Art of Living” by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman and “The Little Book of Stoicism: Timeless Wisdom to Gain Resilience, Confidence, and Calmness” by Jonas Salzgeber and Nils Salzgeber. I cannot recommend them enough.

Four other books that rocked my world are physicist David Deutsch’s “The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World” which is about the origin and limitlessness of knowledge, and economist Tyler Cowen’s “Marginal Revolution: Small Steps Toward a Much Better World,” “Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous and Responsible Individuals,” and “Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.”

I hope you get as much out of these books as I have.

Good luck on your “diet.”

Onward and upward!

Photo by i yunmai on Unsplash